Lorton
Lorton

Struggling to come up with a lede for this story on Northwest hardy gardenias, I asked half a dozen friends what came to mind when I said gardenias. It all started out rather circumspectly: Proms. Weddings.

Then it revved-up a bit: “thick, creamy, velvety petals.” “I see Billie Holiday with a full-blown blossom tucked behind her ear.” “The perfume of paradise.” 

So far, so good.

Then the intoxication of fragrance-driven memory stuck: “Reminds me of childhood ukulele lessons with Pualani on vacation in Hawaii with my parents.”

What?

And then this: “The scent of gardenia wraps you in tropical romance,” and “Sultry nights and stolen kisses.” Holy Olfactory!

Move over Danielle Steel.

Ah, but hyperbole forgiven. Gardenias can do that to you and, with all due respect to my trusted sources, I looked up pualani. In native Hawaiian it means “heavenly flower.”

I’ve known gardeners who grow gardenias in pots as house plants, some who move them outdoors from spring until fall. But gardenias, outside, all year, were once only the privilege of the Deep South. That has changed.

Selected and hybridized, a few named varieties will now flourish in our gardens, making it, thus far, through our most serious winter temperature dips.

All have been selected from the species native to China, Taiwan and Japan - Gardenia jasminoides or Gardenia augusta, depending on the reference you use and the taxonomy it trusts.

All are handsome shrubs, with or without their beautiful and spectacularly fragrant flowers. Foliage is dense, lance-shaped (an inch or two in length), thick and bright glossy green. Grown next to the foundation of the house, south-facing, is the choice location. This gives the plants additional protection from any plunges in the thermometer. With the overhead protection of a roof eave they are even safer but they must be kept judiciously irrigated.

All gardenias need rich, quick-draining soil, plenty of sunlight, at least half a day or more, summer heat and, to set robust crops of flowers, regular feeding and watering. Keep the soil continuously moist and feed with a balanced liquid plant food, mixed to manufacturer’s specification, every month, full strength, or bimonthly at half-strength, from April through September.

Skimp on either water or feeding and foliage will yellow and flower buds shrivel. Tend these plants with commitment and they’ll reward you with their deeply scented magic well into October.

I’ll start with my favorite, the one in the photograph, G.j. “Chuck Hayes.” This plant will reach four feet with a near equal spread. The flowers are double, intensely fragrant and have a bloom period that extends into autumn. I grow mine in a large pot on a south-facing deck, year round, where it gets more than half a day of summer sun. This gardenia is considered one of the most heat-tolerant.

Touted, as the hardiest yet, G. j. “Frost Proof” is relatively new to the market. I have only read about it. If the hype is true, it appears to be Chuck’s tougher sibling.

The first of the gardenias to appear in Northwest gardens was G. j. “Kleim’s Hardy.”

It’s the easiest to find in nurseries and lives up to its reputation of hardiness. The flower is single, five petals, and richly fragrant. This small shrub is good for containers.

As with any gardening, snip one blossom and float it in a bowl of water, with a bit of foliage for contrast. It will lavishly perfume a room or dinner table.

So, add a gardenia to your spring-planting list. You’ll find a few in plant stores, more in catalogs and online. Get them in soil by early next April. Even small plants will bloom the first year.

When our sultry weather arrives, you may be prompted to strum your ukulele and await some stolen kisses.